It was 7:30 AM. Our unmarked van had arrived at the secret Mulholland Drive address half an...
hour early. Including me, there were six of us on board. All of them including, Will, the driver, Hal the camera operator and Charlie the audio man were in a foul mood because of the late call which put them on a continuous 24 hour shift. This tour of duty put them into “Golden Time.” Under the NABET union contract this doubled their normal rate of pay and then added “penalties” for “missing meals” etc. However, doing a continuous shift required a special kind of mindset that required merely ranking “overtime” over life, your spouse and children and maybe even …God. These guys were really dragging.
Not to mention: Zak, the lighting director and, Sterno, his crew of one, a burly alcoholic stage hand/electrician who disappeared inappropriately and mysteriously for long and inordinate times. Sterno got his nickname from the fact that in a pinch he claimed the canned stuff would do. But, Sterno was very proud that he never drank on holidays. “I’m a professional drinker”, he would say. “We professionals would never drink with you amateurs!"
Will, the NABET driver, who also was our “utility man," parked the van across the street from a huge iron gate embedded in the ten foot wall that barred entrance to the property. Will would later help set up the camera and audio equipment. I said, "We will have to wait until 8 o'clock, because I don't want to arrive even a minute early. I don't want anything to upset Mr. Brando."
The enigmatic and reclusive, Oscar-winning, actor had consented to do a rare interview with Charlie Gibson of ABC's "Good Morning America" show, and management had warned me that Mr. Brando was very unpredictable and that any small deviation from the agreed on plan might cause him to cancel.
I had been told to be sure to be on time; to have the crew do the set-up quickly and quietly with minimal disturbance, and to depart immediately as soon as the interview was finished.
When I told them who we were interviewing, the crew was duly impressed, although they still remained a little surly. Those who had other assignments after they finished this one, albeit though they were being paid handsomely, were anxious to finish the job and go home.
Before any of them could register a complaint, a plain-clothes security guard suddenly appeared at our van window.
I explained to him that we were the TV crew from ABC and that we were scheduled to do an interview at 8 o'clock. I apologized to him for being early and assured him we would wait outside the gate until the appointed time.
The guard nodded and then disappeared for about 10 minutes. But then he returned. "Ya know, maybe it would be better if you came inside. Marlon might get pissed if he knew you were waiting out here."
I assured him that we didn't mind, and in fact would prefer to wait outside across the road and off of Mr. Brando's property. But he kept insisting, and so I told him it was OK to open the gate. I figured we would go inside but park the van just in front of the fence on Brando's side of the property where it couldn't be seen.
Powerful, hidden electric motors swung the giant gates, silently open revealing a curving gravel driveway that disappeared into heavily forested underbrush. No place to park. The guard motioned us to follow his car on the driveway even though there were signs everywhere warning of attack and possible dismemberment by vicious dogs. As our van crunched and popped its way on two well-established ruts, we assumed hidden cameras were following us. And then there were more of those vicious dog signs every hundred feet or so. Maybe this guy really was a Godfather. One thing for certain: No one knew that Brando was living here. The public and even most of the press assumed he was living on his island in the Pacific. I mean: who, in his right mind would be living within arm’s reach on Mulholland Drive when they could be on a beach in Paradise on their own private island? But, then again, this was Brando.
Finally the house appeared, set up on a hill, gleaming in the morning sun. It was a steel and glass structure that looked more like an industrial headquarters than a comfy home. Very impressive to industrial clients, I imagined, but I knew all that glass was going make it a nightmare to find a place to set up our television camera. Actually Howard Hughes had built this hall of mirrors, and I doubt if he gave a damn about television. However, there was a large parking lot facing the home, so I told Will to park in a convenient place where we could off load the equipment, but I told the guys we would still have to wait, because we were still 25 minutes early.
The guard came over, breathless and said, “Ya know, maybe it would be better if you came inside. Marlon might get pissed if he knew you were waiting out here.”
He looked terrified, but I remembered my boss’s admonition not to do anything that might jeopardize the interview.
Well, the guard disappeared into the house, but came right out again, running to our van. There was trace perspiration through his shirt, and his face had reddened. "Ya know, maybe it would be better if you came inside. Marlon really will get pissed if he knew you were waiting out here.”
Realizing his urgent pleading had upped a notch, I finally said, “Okay guys, let’s take our stuff out of the van, very quietly and then creep into the house and sit quietly on our haunches."
The crew struggled carrying the equipment up the small flight of steps, but entrance into the house was easy, and without much difficulty we found ourselves still a good twenty minutes early, standing in a living room that looked like it had come out of a designer showcase on Melrose Boulevard: Glass, Glass, Glass everywhere; each piece of furniture carefully placed for maximum effect with interesting objects distributed on tables for artistic ambience. While the overall impression was compelling, it didn’t give me any clue as to the character or personality of our host. For example, there was a fancy piece of fired glasswork on the floor near the fireplace. In that same area Ernie Kovaks would have installed a suit of armor. Yet on a table next to an overstuffed chair there was a chessboard. This was definitely out of character with all that decorator stuff. Ah! Indeed, a chessboard! A very special chessboard. I had seen one of these once and it cost nearly one thousand dollars! It contained a computer chess program that could play at nearly Master level, and you could play against it, or you could watch it play against itself, magically moving the chess pieces as if by a hidden hand. Nobody could really afford one of these unless he really loved the game of chess.
For comparison, the first computer chess game that I can remember was“Boris.” Boris came in a small wooden box that contained the chess program. The tiny chess pieces and a small chess board were separate items that were stored in a space inside the box. The price was $400. Boris wasn’t a very strong program, but it created quite a stir among chess players, because it had a little video screen where “Boris” made comments on the game like, (and I paraphrase here): “You putz! Didn’t fool me, I’ve seen that one before.”
Brando’s computer chessboard with its unseen player was preceded by 200 years by craftsman Wolfgang von Kempelen who wanted to impress the Empress Maria Theresa of Austria. His mechanism, called the “Turk” appeared to be able to play a strong game of chess against a human opponent, and in fact, among many of the smitten, beat Emperor Napoleon. I have no idea whether Napoleon was a good chess player, but I imagine a human chess player might have regretted a win against him.
The “Turk” was a turbaned dark-skinned human size doll mechanism that sat behind a large wooden box on which was placed the chess board. The back and sides of the box could be opened to reveal gears and levers that concealed a human chess master hiding inside who actually operated the machine. Using many of the same misleading illusions and devices of modern day magicians von Klempelen was able to reveal the contents of the machine without disclosing the operator hiding inside.
One of Marlon’s staff members came up to me, introduced himself as Melvin and asked, “Can I get you and your crew something to drink? Some breakfast or some Danish? You guys must be hungry.”
Mindful, once again of the admonition from ABC management, I said, “Well thanks very much, Melvin, but I think we’re all doing just fine.” Melvin looked a bit perplexed and his brow furrowed a bit as he asked again, “Are you sure? Ya know Marlon might get pissed if he thought you guys…(etc).”
Yep, Melvin had that same look of terror that I had noticed on the guard. Marlon had his staff intimidated for sure. “Off with their heads!” We were definitely in Wonderland.
I said, “Melvin, why don’t you bring us all a nice glass of orange juice. I think that would be great. I looked at the crew. Don’t you think so, fellows?” They all nodded in agreement, not having heard a word of my conversation with Melvin. Melvin disappeared down a hallway doing Mach 3.
We were still a good twenty minutes early. Zak, our lighting director asked, “Where do you want to set up, Ron?”
I said, “Well, we still have lots of time. Why don’t we look around for someplace that won’t catch the glare of the morning sun? Your little battery powered lights don’t look like they can do much.”
Zak nodded, “Don’t worry, Ron, I’ve got plenty of stuff in the Van. Besides, I brought every battery powered lamp on the lot.” The fact was, although the battery powered lights worked great, they often would only last a few minutes because the crews kept them on the charger all the time, and the batteries needed to be charged only when they were worn down. Properly charged they could last for hours, but on almost every shoot it seemed they would die just when you needed them.
Suddenly, Melvin appeared, rocketing down the hall with a cart neatly arrayed with 5 glasses and a pitcher filled with just-squeezed orange juice and an artistic display of linen napkins. I think you get the picture: Melvin rocketing; one wheel of the cart slightly out of round, bouncing and clacking from gum stuck to one of its wheels; juice bouncing, but somehow not splashing until the cart came to a stop! Three NABET group 2 Engineers, one IATSE Stagehand and one DGA Director converged on the dripping cart but froze into a comic tableaux as one SAG talent suddenly appeared from a hallway on the other side of the room, very large indeed — immense, wearing only boxer shorts!
“Good Morning! Did you guys get some breakfast?”
I stepped out of the tableaux. “We are enjoying some nice fresh orange juice, Marlon. It’s delicious!"
“ORANGE JUICE? That’s not breakfast! For God’s sake, Melvin, these guys must be starving! Bring them some Coffee, Danish, some Bacon and Sausages, Cereal, Eggs, Steak, you know: FOOD. Get them whatever they want!”
Then he turned to me. "How are you going to shoot me? What should I wear?” I have no idea how he knew I was the Director.
“Well, considering the solemnity of the occasion, I think a dark suit with a nice shirt and tie.” (Right now even a towel to cover up those rolls of flesh would have been helpful).
“Yeah, yeah. I know that. I have a nice dark blue suit. But what I mean is: How are you going to shoot me?” (Maybe with a gun?)
“Well knowing New York, they probably will want me to take a few medium close ups from the waist up, and lots of head shots. You know, talking heads, intimate stuff.”
“OK, OK, Ron. Just nothing below the waist?”
“Right, Marlon." (How the heck did he know my name?)
Marlon disappeared down the hall and the guys started placing their orders for breakfast to Melvin, who now looked like someone who had just avoided the death penalty.
Meanwhile, I started looking around for a chair and a place to shoot where I could get clean shots without stuff growing out of Marlon’s head. A place with nice even light.
Yeah, right! This diabolical room, with its glass panels, floor to ceiling windows etc. had light ping ponging everywhere I could envision placing a camera. I suddenly realized I was going to have to move something. The words from management still echoed in my head: “Have the crew do the set-up quietly and quickly with minimal disturbance.” Now, if I moved something, would that qualify as minimal disturbance? Would I cross that line in spite of management warnings? I was already becoming conflicted. This interview was a very big deal.
As I was having these thoughts another one of Marlon’s staff appeared, coming out of the same hallway that Marlon had just used. Well, maybe not a staff; a blonde female in short shorts, adjusting bra over large breasts, tossing her peroxide tresses and putting lipstick on at the same time. As she sped to the front door I stopped her and asked, “Do you think Marlon would mind if I moved some of his furniture?”
She gave me a very strange look. “What do ya think I am? An encyclopedia? Ask him yourself.”
I was going to congratulate her on knowing that big word, but she had disappeared out the door.
So I walked around to see if maybe there was an extra nice looking chair that I could use for Marlon.
As I was walking down this hall I found a room that must have originally been an office. It had glass walls and a glass door. Moreover, it appeared now to be a wood shop with lots of nice hand tools, lathes, electric saws a spindle sander etc. In the midst of a pile of sawdust there was an absolutely gorgeous Duncan Phyfe coffee table. It looked brand new because it had no finish, although the design might well have been from the 1880s. Just then another member of the staff appeared.
“Good morning, can I help you?”
“I was just admiring someone’s beautiful craftsmanship.”
“Oh, that’s some of Marlon’s work. He and Wally Cox used to build furniture together. Do you remember Wally as 'Mr. Peepers'?"
“Wally Cox? Did he know Wally?”
“Oh yeah, he and Wally were best friends. In fact, when Wally died, Marlon was really broken up. Marlon even keeps Wally’s ashes on the fireplace mantel.
By the way, I’m Jose. That’s ho-say spelled with a ‘J’. If there is anything you need…”
I said, “Well yes, Jose’. As a matter of fact, I’m trying to find a chair that we might use for the interview.”
“Hmm, a chair. Well, we’ve got chairs all over the living room. Take any one you want.”
“Well, there is a nice high-backed leather chair on the far side of the living room. But I was thinking that I might want to move it closer to the front door. There seems to be more room there to set up our TV equipment.”
Jose shrugged his shoulders. “Well, that’s no problem. We can move it for you.”
We walked back out to the living room, and pretty soon Jose was struggling with the very large high-backed leather chair, disrupting four or five other pieces as he banged and bumped his way across the floor.
Where the hell was Sterno? This was really his job.
I had Jose move the chair a few times until it seemed safe from the cross fire of rays from the morning sun. There was one glass wall that seemed to be in the way. Unfortunately, it had a waterfall running down it into a tank concealed by a lot of greenery.
“Not to worry,” said Sterno, suddenly appearing from behind the waterfall, cheeks full of a donut he must have gotten from the kitchen, wiping powdered sugar from his mouth. “I’ve figured out where this thing plugs in. I’ll unplug it and Joe-say you can start getting rid of some of this jungle.”
And I added, “While you’re there, Sterno, why don’t you rotate that blue glass panel until it’s out of the sun.”
Pretty soon there wasn’t a piece of furniture that hadn’t been moved, and we had the camera set up pointing at the leather chair with a nice end table placed next to it. Finally, I asked Melvin, who had returned from the kitchen, if he thought Marlon would mind if we put the automated chess board on the table for decoration.
“No problem, anything you want do is fine, Mr. Bacon. Do you like chess?”
I said, “Well, I used to play a little chess.”
Somewhere in the back of my mind I remembered an article in “Parade Magazine” written many years ago by an actor who wrote about his game with Marlon. Evidently, chess was a very popular way to kill time during long breaks in filming, and Marlon had a reputation for being a very strong player. But, not only that, his memory and conversational brilliance were amazing.
As Sterno and Jose’ and I jostled the furniture around, Zak set some lights on stands. Hal positioned the camera on a lightweight pedestal and Charlie hooked up the IFB to an earpiece that Marlon would have to wear and strung the wire from his mixer to a tiny microphone that would be concealed by Marlon’s tie.
The overall effect was that the front of the living room was a tangle of wires and objects unsuitable for decoration, and the back of the room was the scene of destruction.
Suddenly, Marlon appeared, now wearing a beautiful dark blue suit coat, formal white shirt and striped tie, but still in his boxer shorts and bare feet!
“How do I look?” he asked. “Does this work for you? No shots below the waist, right?”
“Right, Marlon. You look great. Nice coat.” Marlon sat down in the leather chair. Charlie hooked up the microphone to his tie and gave him the earpiece, carefully hiding the wire underneath his collar.
I said, “Marlon, I want to apologize for making such a ruin of your living room. I guarantee we will restore every piece of furniture to it’s rightful place”.
Marlon laughed and said, “Don’t worry about it. It’s just a bunch of rental crap. My people will put it back where it belongs”.
I heaved a sigh of relief because I had no idea where things belonged. I had really made a mess of everything trying to create a set out of the glare of the sun!
Just then the phone rang. I picked it up. It was the New York Producer. “We’ve got your picture Hollywood. We’re ready to roll. But get rid of that chess set. It’s a distraction. Let me talk to Marlon.”
“It’s for you, Marlon. It’s the Producer.”
“Producer! I don’t want to talk to any Producer! Give me the guy who’s going to do the interview! Let me talk to Gibson! Hi Charlie! Hi, this is Marlon. No shots below the waist, right? Right! How do you like my chess set? Beautiful isn’t it? Just got it. Yeah I knew you’d like it, too. Listen, you set up the interview. Tell them that today is the 15th Anniversary of Dr. King’s death…You have a clip of me in the parade walking by the horse drawn cart? Great, great! OK, you set it up. Solemn, occasion, and so forth. Then you give it to me. I have a few words I want to say. And that’s it. Great! Great! That’s how we’ll do it! Okay Ron?”
I did my thing: "Quiet everybody. Hal, tighten your shot a bit.”
I was wearing a headset that was plugged into the camera, and I could hear the New York Director.
“New York, roll tape. Five, four, three, two, one. Cue Charlie.”
We didn’t have a return feed from New York, but I could hear Charlie’s voice although I couldn’t see the picture.
Charlie was doing his usual masterful news guy setup, recalling that day in Atlanta when hundreds of thousands of mourners followed the simple horse drawn cart that carried the body of Dr. King. His words described the pictures in the film clip that I could not see, but I knew ‘GMA’ had on the screen. Then he said something like: “Your thoughts Marlon?”
Marlon Brando was famous for not being willing or able to memorize his lines. He usually had them written on cue cards or pieces of paper or even on the palm of his hand. Today was not one of those times.
Marlon Brando, acclaimed by many as America’s Greatest Actor, pulled himself up to the full height of his reputation, gathering all of his capabilities at moving emotions and even more, gathering his incredible rhetorical skills to evoke powerful memories of that heart stirring day. You could almost hear the clack of the horses’ hooves, the sobbing voices and feel the quiet tears of the millions of mourners in his dramatic narration. Marlon was reaching deep into his innermost compassion for those who had been denied. But then, he turned his focus on the American Indian, whose plight, he reminded us, was even worse.
The 500 tribes that once inhabited our continent had been pared down to a bare handful in modern times. Disease, broken treaties, wholesale disregard for the plight of these poor innocents…a proud and beautiful people, magical, spiritual, with rich traditions of their own had been beaten down, humiliated and denied the most basic of human rights.
Marlon Brando, highest paid actor of all time, could feel the pain of those who were at the bottom of the pile. What mysterious force gave him so much compassion for the forgotten as he looked down from his perch high above Hollywood on Mulholland Drive?
The 7 minute segment had run over by three or four minutes, but it didn’t matter. The New York Producer would have a transcript made of the entire interview and would mark the necessary cuts to bring the segment to time. The Associate Director would now make the cuts in the editing room.
Did Marlon’s passionate plea on behalf of the Indians make the final cut? I don’t know how it turned out, but that has always has remained on my mind. Marlon Brando was certainly being consistent with his support of the American Indian. In 1973 he had refused his Academy Award for Best Actor at the 45th Academy Awards and replaced himself with Apache Indian, Sacheen Littlefeather, who made a passionate plea for help on behalf of her tribe.